Reinvesting in Main Street: How downtown Bluffton is coming back to life

April 5th, 2019

By Lauren Caggiano | Input Fort Wayne

Across the country, Main Streets were once the hub of activity in small cities and towns. Community members in Bluffton are committed to make that the norm again.

With a track record of successful downtown revitalization efforts, a community organization Bluffton NOW! is leading the charge.

Located in Wells County, Bluffton has a population of about 10,000 people. The Parlor City, as it's known, has been through difficult financial times. As President of Bluffton NOW!, Michael W. Lautzenheiser, Jr., speaks candidly about the city's struggles.

“Downtown changed from kind of peeking out in the 1980s and being okay in the 1990s, and then it really started to go downhill in the 2000’s,” Lautzenheiser says. “Unfortunately, we lost two buildings and had another building severely damaged by fires.”

Put simply, the situation went from bad from worse. A few buildings didn’t have a working HVAC unit. According to Lautzenheiser, that was the “last straw.”

Even so, the decline of the downtown proved to be a catalyst for renewed interest in its revitalization and development. For example, the city created its first building inspection department to address safety and maintenance issues before they become disastrous. Then came a concerted effort to revitalize and restore downtown Bluffton to its once-vibrant past.

Bluffton NOW! was formed as a result of this effort in 2014.

“From then on, we've been tasked with trying to make sure that we're resolving those issues, and we've got a couple of programs that help us accomplish those tasks,” Lautzenheiser says.

The first order of business was partnering with the city of Bluffton. By way of that relationship, he says they were able to introduce a community revitalization grant program. 

“We can match dollar-for-dollar up to $25,000 for people who want to make improvements to the interior or exterior of their buildings, with the direct goal of helping people with the costs involved with maintaining and getting things up to code."

It took some time, but Bluffton has seen some success stories come out of the grant program. If you ask Lautzenheiser, those wins are psychological as much as they are economic. 

“It's been really neat to see people starting to invest in their properties, and in turn, they have seen more foot traffic and business. We've added several businesses back into the downtown mix.”

The latter is no small feat. A 2017 article from The Brookings Institution explains that along with revitalizing communities, a thriving Main Street can foster entrepreneurship in cities by supporting existing and would-be business owners.

“Local revitalization efforts clear the path for entrepreneurs, connecting them with financing, space, training, and other resources,” the article says.

It cites Emporia, KS, as one such example of this work in action. With a population of about 25,000 residents, the town celebrates the launch or expansion of its 70th small business in the last 15 years as a result of its efforts.

As for Bluffton, Lautzenheiser says that positive momentum underscores another priority the organization has identified: Getting people to come to downtown with activities and attractions.

“We came up with the idea of expanding our courthouse plaza area and making an open space gathering area for all sorts of planned and unplanned events to occur," he says. “That's been really our big focus over the last couple years.”

The Bluffton group is still in the midst of fundraising, but Lautzenheiser is bullish about the future of the project, feeling the support from community members about the revitalization's progress so far.

"At first, there was there was definitely concern, not knowing where things were going to go,” he says. “Then people are starting the see things happen, and it's been a very, very positive effect. We're getting new downtown champions all the time. People are saying how much they appreciate having it come back to life.”